Cover art captured from “In Case You Forgot I’m BLACK” (Shot/edited by Jordan “JTek” Cardona)
Trigger Warning: The short film that is the subject of this interview contains graphic footage and symbolism of police brutality.
This March 8 interview with Dende covers the musical short film “In Case You Forgot I’m BLACK.” Dende talks about last summer’s police brutality protests, frustration with the lack of change, the effect of the weight on his person and healthy advice for healing in the communities most affected.
It’s been almost a year since Americans protesting police brutality flooded city streets. A series of highly publicized extrajudicial executions, like the suffocation of George Floyd in the Minneapolis streets or the blind shooting of Breonna Taylor in her own home, brought protestors out with a renewed fire for national change in policing. Less than a year later, following yet another fatal shooting of Daunte Wright at a traffic stop and the ongoing trial of Floyd’s executioner, many stay ignited by the previous summer’s surge of activism and remain frustrated with the lack of defunding or even sufficient reform they protested to gain. For Houston, TX emcee and R&B singer Dende, his musical short film “In Case You Forgot I’m BLACK” has been a way for him to keep the fire lit while processing the repeated community trauma through a familiar outlet.
On June 10, 2020, Dende stood alongside hundreds of others outside Houston City Hall, but he wasn’t counting heads — he had been there every day for the last two weeks, whether among thousands or just a few activists. The weekend before, his friend was arrested at one such protest for “being in the streets,” Dende tells me over a Zoom call. By the end of Houston’s protests, his friend was just one of 796 criminal cases made against protestors for “civil disobedience,” but today, Dende was determined to make his voice heard. Inside City Hall, within shouting distance, the Houston City Council was voting on a 2021 city budget resolution that included a $20 million increase for the Houston Police Department. Amid calls to defund the police from outside the building, the City Council voted unanimously to approve the budget increase.
In an attempt to placate the protestors whose request to postpone the vote was ignored, The Harris County District Attorney’s Office announced they would dismiss the 796 criminal cases for arrests “which were characterized by District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office as mostly non-violent misdemeanors such as trespassing and obstructing highways.” While “Nearly 800 Cases Dropped Against BLM Protestors” ties a headline up nicely, the reality was yet still messier. Cases dropped against protestors could not be expunged from records without further legal assistance for those charged. While the difference might seem like a formality from the outside, to Dende, it was both symbolically and practically representative of the loaded gestures repeatedly used to overwrite the generational trauma, fear and anger of communities targeted by police brutality and assuage the concerns of those outside the communities.
When a case is dropped but not expunged — along with legal fees and due process associated with applying for expunction — defendants would be required to pay a $350 filing fee before having the charge removed from their record. In a phone interview, Ms. Monique Sparks — a criminal defense attorney with the Houston Protestors’ Defense Team — tells me that her organization was one of several to make a formal request of the District Attorney’s Office to handle the cases as a group expunction – a request which was denied. While her team offered the required legal services at no charge, Sparks also iterated that a majority of those affected were college students, who in the meantime would live with the arrest records on applications for internships, jobs and graduate schools. Arrest records that would also show up to Houston Police officers during routine traffic stops and other interactions as civil disobedience charges on the date of widespread police brutality protests — further exacerbating the inconvenience to a safety concern.
In my conversation with Dende — presented below and lightly edited for content and clarity — he expressed frustration with last summer’s sudden post-protest complacency, but also with the heat of maintaining the fire. “In Case You Forgot I’m BLACK” is about using art to keep the cause front and center while uplifting and re-energizing those most drained by the unceasing pressure of institutional violence and its scars — both glaringly visible and quietly shouldered.
Brandon: The production quality of this film is one of the first things I noticed. How were you able to get all the resources to make that happen?
Dende: So first of all, the videographer and editor [Jordan “JTek” Cardona] I’ve known for like four to five years now — since I first moved back to Houston. I hit him with the idea for this short film last June, and I was like, ‘I want to use you because you’re gonna make sure it looks good and we have the same kind of mindset.
I almost gave up on it, because at the time I had a manager, and that person was supposed to be doing a lot for me, and it kind of just fell apart. I ended up not having the funding for it anymore. I worked for Juice Land Houston [at the time]. My job had this scholarship fund, where basically, you write an essay and talk about what you’re going to use that money for. I wrote about wanting to do this short film, and about what I experienced when I was out there protesting, and they just came into my job one day and gave me a check. ‘Oh, here you go. Pay for the film.’ Alright, cool.
You said that the film was “a reaction to people being critical of your involvement and publication of the George Floyd protests.”
I was out there, and I stopped doing music and stuff. I was using my social media — posting videos, pictures that I took, facts, like things I was seeing that the news wasn’t posting, even though we gave the news the stuff. I was using my social media ‘cuz I have a platform. I’m gonna use it that way. People started unfollowing me at first and then I had, specifically a person that said I went to college with him. He was just like, ‘I’ve been following your career, and I was really hoping you’d be big but I can’t get behind what you’re doing. I don’t think you should be out there supporting Black Lives Matter and protesting and stuff and I don’t want to see it.’ So ‘In Case You Forgot I’m BLACK’ is where that name came from. I care about all this because it affects me.
What was your experience like with the protests in Houston?
At a certain point that night, they [the Houston police department] started corralling people. Like the police were making a planned-out effort to box people in and cut off certain streets to make people walk a certain way. Then after about midnight, they were like, ‘everybody that’s outside is going to jail.’ So they started arresting everybody. That next weekend, my friend got arrested for literally being in the street. I got pretty angry about that because during the day it was literally just people in the streets. It’s not illegal to be in the streets — I looked up our rights and stuff. I was going out there and giving people their rights that [I got] from the ACLU, just to make sure that everybody knows how not to get arrested illegally, even though it didn’t really help that much. My overall takeaway from the protests, though… it felt like people cared [only] for a moment. It was a little bit disheartening. All these people were out here, but the next week, they passed a budget for a billion dollars for the police, even though we asked them to defund the police in Houston. So it was just kind of like, what was this for?
What was your goal in documenting the protests?
I just like to have things. When you look at stuff from the past — even though it was almost a year ago now — you see where we were at that point. Then you see where we are right now is not that much different. I just wanted to have that and be like, ‘look at this. This is how angry we were, and this is what happened after that. Which is absolutely nothing.’ There were literally thousands of people that third weekend of the protests because George Floyd is from Houston. His family was there at City Hall, and I think it was like 13,000 people out and nothing happened. So I kind of just wanted to document that.
What do you think of when I say protest music?
Anderson .Paak. I would say “Lockdown” is a really good one because of how it makes you feel when you’re listening to it — even if you’re not listening to the words. Which is why I made that song “Dance.” Because even if you’re not listening to the words to “Dance,” you like it because it sounds good and it makes you want to dance. Then if you’re listening to it, now you’re forced to hear stuff. You’re forced to hear how I feel as a person and how a lot of Black creatives feel. You have to listen to it because now you liked the song.
I kind of switched over from just going to protests and posting protests to being like, ‘Oh, they want me to make music. Okay, I’ll make music, but I’ll make them hear it.’ One way or another, they’re gonna see this.
Was that the idea behind showing the mix of old footage with the new?
I want to show that this is how police brutality was handled back then, [and] this is how it’s handled right now. It’s still not that much different. But now we had that callous line of police officers basically not paying attention when a Black man is pouring out his soul to them. It felt like — how when I was out there talking to police officers — it was like a stone wall was yelling at a wall. Which is what I think protests kind of feel like — just yelling at a wall. Some places they worked. Some places got police reform, but a lot of places didn’t see any change. We just yelled at a wall with 13,000 people.
In your video, the actual footage of George Floyd then cuts to a parallel image of you being held to the ground. Why did you choose to mirror that particular imagery?
The reason I put it in there is because I had never even watched that footage. I avoided the footage because I knew it was gonna make me mad. The first time I watched it was when we put it in there. I went over there to watch the full video and I fucking cried immediately.
I wanted to mirror that because maybe if you see this man, and you see the altercation leading up to him losing his life, then maybe seeing someone that you do care about, or know… seeing me in that same situation — because it very well could have been me — would make people care. It was just like, put a different face behind it. The main thing I kept hearing was ‘George Floyd was no saint.’ Which is a wild statement. He was no saint? How would you feel if that was me down there crying for my mom as a grown man? I wanted to force people to picture me in that position.
In that section, a bar that stood out to me was “How we supposed to fix it? If you don’t know the problem?” Where do you think the disconnect comes from?
Biased news media. Choosing to be ignorant.
A kind of a class war that we’re kind of creeping up on too. I feel like it’s a lot. When we try to say police brutality, people like to link it to Black people and people of color, but police brutalize a lot of people. It’s not just Black. It’s not Black against the police. It’s people against police brutality. That’s a disconnect.
It’s just all the people that they are seeing talking about it are Black people, and a lot of the population doesn’t really want to hear that anymore. They’re tired. They’re like, ‘we fixed that a long time ago. We don’t segregate anymore. The problem is gone. If you’re getting hurt by the police, it’s because you did something. Because it would take me to do something crazy for the police to treat me like that!’
It’s a disconnect between races and classes because police aren’t really here to attack people of color. They’re mostly here to protect peoples’ wealth. I think it’s a big disconnect on a lot of different levels. That would take me a way longer time to talk about.
As the imagery of you being held to the ground fades into the foreground, the protesters step back and make room for these dancers. Is there sort of twofold imagery here?
Even though I’m not in that shot anymore, you still know I’m there. Although you’re not seeing the issue, the issue is still there. This distraction is what I saw in protests. I saw weeks of people being outraged, and then I saw, like Drake drop a song, or Beyonce drop a music video, and then it was just over. Nobody cared. Nobody was in the streets anymore, and they definitely weren’t showing it on the news anymore. Once they’re done, everybody claps it up, and they leave and it’s as if they forgot why they were there in the first place. Then you just see me get up, and it’s just like, again, I have to just brush this off and move on with my life.
In what ways do you think people have become distracted or placated since the surge of energy from last summer’s protests?
Specifically in Houston, I can speak about what I know for a fact. After they arrested over 600 to 700 people illegally, they dropped charges. They did not expunge them though, which means that they have arrest records. But to the general public, the charges have dropped so it doesn’t really matter. These people had to spend two nights in jail, but ‘it’s okay.’ That’s one of the things that appeased people. The fact that nobody really tuned into the City Hall meetings, because like I said, during the midst of these protests we were going to the City Hall meetings and calling them and one particular day I heard over a couple of hundred people call in and tell them not to pass the budget for Houston for 2021 yet. At least give us time to actually read it, because that budget allotted about a billion dollars for the Houston Police Department even though we were out there protesting saying we wanted them to at least defund the police or reallocate funds.
There was one thing in there that was about — as opposed to police showing up to mental health calls — a team of social workers and an EMT coming in an unmarked vehicle and de-escalating the situation. This would help, considering that we just had a man named Nicholas Chavez gunned down by [five] police officers while he was on the ground. It was a mental health call, he was literally suicidal and they killed him. It’s distractions like our Chief of Police going out during protests and dancing with protesters and telling them that he supports protests and doing CNN interviews. Then that night, his police officers get authorization to gas people on their knees and beat them, tackle them to the ground and arrest them for obstruction of roadways while they block off both sides of the road so you can’t even leave the road anyway.
You still getting a 10 year minimum for drug charges when police officers are getting paid leave for killing people that look just like me.” – Dende, “In Case You Forgot I’m BLACK”
The next section of the film was the most powerful to me. You get in the car and you have this monologue where you are expressing this frustration with these seemingly unsolvable problems. As the drive goes on, I feel the weight pressing down. While you may be feeling at your most defeated in that specific moment, is that weight always there in some way?
100%. The best thing I can kind of compare that to is when the Blue Lives Matter people say, ‘well, Blue Lives Matter, too.’ Yeah, but at the end of the day, they can take off their badge and their uniform. At the end of the day, I’m still Black. My parents are still Black. They have to worry about my Black ass going to protests and getting the shit beat out of me. They have to worry about me getting pulled over and illegally searched — which has happened. They have to worry about me getting arrested for no reason. They have to worry about me maybe being dead. It’s a weight that doesn’t go away. We keep seeing over and over and over again people being murdered. Then the person that does it gets off without any real repercussions. It’s just something that doesn’t go away.
Do you feel like you live under the expectation to not show how that weight affects you?
100%. That’s a lot of what “Little Black Boy” is about. Even Black people do that too, or we do that to ourselves, which is a problem. We expect Black men to just be callus and just push stuff off and not cry and not care. It really is an expectation to just be like, ‘okay, well, I guess we have to move on from this. Maybe they’ll learn next time…’ It’s weird.
The way the party in the video directly contrasts with that low point symbolizes resilience to me. Do people coming together make that weight a little easier to bear?
100%. The reason I wanted to go from that low moment where I kind of just express my distaste with the whole thing that’s going on — and that has been going on forever — the reason I wanted to switch over to “DrkSkin” is basically to talk to Black people. The first half is talking to everyone, the second half of this movie — last two songs — are just me talking to Black people in general. Just being like, ‘hey, I know that this is going on and this is terrible. But Black women, y’all are powerful, y’all are beautiful, y’all are strong, y’all are important, and we love you. That’s what that is. It’s literally just to be like, ‘hey, I know, you probably don’t feel like it, because you keep seeing all this stuff happening. You probably might feel the same way that I feel about it, but just know that you’re important. You do belong here and you’re good.’
The last part is you rapping to a child in his bedroom. The message you’re delivering, where does that come from?
Me talking to a younger me. That was me giving advice that I wish I heard. That was me telling a young Black boy, ‘you don’t have to be this callous person. You can be yourself. You can be sensitive. It’s okay to cry. I think it’s necessary to cry. You can literally be anything you want to be no matter what anyone tells you. Just keep your head up and be that person you need and you got it.’ There was also a message about being closer to your family. Be close to your family because personally, I grew up knowing my grandparents and then my grandfather died. I knew him as my grandfather, but I didn’t know him as a person. I didn’t really know much about him. I don’t want to feel like that ever again. Learn your lineage, love your family and know them. That was just a conversation to have with a little Black boy though. Like, man, ‘I know this world’s crazy, but if you be the best person you can possibly be it’s going to be all right.’
How do you balance finding a way to live your life without losing that fire for change?
I feel like I’m still learning. At the beginning, I was just angry when I was out there protesting. I was going to City Hall every morning even if it was me by myself — which happened a lot. It was like 60 officers… like, it was just… I was pissed. That’s detrimental to your mental health. I almost crashed — physically, myself, my body. So I don’t know… I’m still learning how to balance that and not lead with anger, but kind of just see what the best course of action is? I’m still learning though.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
I hope they’re forced to watch something that they’ve been avoiding. I hope they’re forced to confront an issue that has been here since the beginning of this country. I hope if they were a dissenting voice against protests for George Floyd, because [they thought] he was ‘no saint,’ I hope that they see it in a different light — as a man that begged for his life — and have a little bit of empathy. For the Black people, I hope we just learn to love each other. A lot of people do care about Black culture and Black people, but you got to love yourself, and I feel like there’s a lot of self-hate going around too. I want Black people to learn to love themselves and be themselves 100%. That’s what I want people to get.